This engaging, intergenerational love story is based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, who also wrote A Walk to Remember. Sparks's novel rests in good hands with this fine adaptation by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi. Leven's credits include The Legend of Bagger Vance and Don Juan DeMarco. Like those films, The Notebook retains the same gentle tone, thoughtfully and respectfully developing characters of depth and dignity. Sardi, meanwhile, is best known for Shine!, the delightfully quirky story of an eccentric Australian pianist. She brings the same energy to The Notebook, capturing the unique world of 1940s South Carolina.
The Notebook begins with an unlikely romance between a young woman from Southern aristocracy, and a blue-collar boy who works at the mill. Noah provides the spontaneity and joy that is missing from Allie's relentless climb up the social ladder. She's off to a classy college and he's looking at a proscribed life of honest, physical labor. In Allie's vivacity and intelligence Noah finds an intellectual and emotional challenge that is missing in his life. Despite the vast differences in wealth and possibilities, both Noah and Allie live lives stifled and defined by class and convention.
A parallel plot takes place between two elderly residents of a nursing home, where Duke (James Garner) reads a romantic novel to a woman suffering from Alzheimer's. She forgets who he is, and forgets that he has been reading to her every day, but once the narrative begins she starts to remember, or at least feel, her life. At times she has clear, but agonizingly brief moments of memory. The staff and Duke's family feel he is wasting his time, but he finds spiritual meaning in the daily interaction. He expects little more than companionship, and takes solace and pleasure from being with the woman as she struggles to keep her fading humanity.
Duke—possibly Garner's finest role—begins as a kindly Southern gentleman, decent and well-mannered. As the story unfolds, we see a man of great spiritual and emotional depth, who at times must face true horror. Gena Rowlands as the old woman is equally engaging. In her we see the longing for a lucid past and the stark terror of losing one's mind and sense of self. Rowlands treats her character with a dignity and honesty that allow us to feel her joy and her terrified confusion.
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are engaging as Noah and Allie, the star-crossed young lovers, but they are a bit melodramatic. If the movie rested completely in their hands, it might come across as a Southern bodice-ripper, complete with antebellum mansions and mossy trees. We are meant to experience their torrid love affair in retrospect however, and when balanced against the deftly nuanced performances of Garner and Rowlands, the effect is quite touching. The Notebook remains in the memory longer than most of the "feel-good" romances in theaters. Nonetheless, it makes us feel good indeed—good in a deeply thoughtful and spiritual way.
The Notebook moves graciously back and forth between these two couples, capturing the pacing and flavor of South Carolina as it was experienced by a white couple in the '40s and '50s. It's a sunny movie, full of bright colors, lush lawns, and sparkling bays. Noah and Allie's romance begins after high school and is cut short by her parents' objections and World War II. As the years go by, Noah and Allie continually miss opportunities to connect, and end up settling for other, lesser loves. Allie finds a boy of good family who is handsome, kind, and breathtakingly rich. Noah connects with a lonely war widow with whom he can share his melancholy. A successful carpenter and builder, he pours his love into restoring an antebellum mansion that has captured his imagination since he was a boy.
Sophisticated filmgoers will have little trouble figuring out where all this is going, but the journey is its own reward. Garner and Rowlands give us a portrayal of old people that is neither cheaply sentimental nor cloying. They are fully realized human beings who experience a full range of emotions and desires. They provide a human face to the purgatory of retirement and nursing homes.
The blazing fire of youthful passion is one of the most overworked themes in film, but it remains infinitely interesting. Youth is a time of energy and hope, and we are afraid we'll miss something if we blink. The warm glow of mature love is rare on the big screen, and perhaps in life as well. Youthful love, while often passionate, usually fails to go the distance, to "death do us part." It's one thing to see two teenagers holding hands, gazing longingly into one another's eyes. It's something else indeed to see the same scene with lovers in their 70s or 80s.
The Notebook is a thoughtful, emotionally rich film that asks the right questions about love and life. In it, we see that great love, like deep faith, is forged on doubt, trials, and hardships. Only then does it deliver its deepest—and most eternal—rewards.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- To what extent is deep love based on deep emotion? To what extent must it be based on similar hopes and dreams?
- The early Christians prayed for a good death rather than an easy one. How would you want to end your days with the one you love?
- How are faith in God's love and faith in an enduring romantic love similar? Different?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Notebook is rated PG-13 for sensual, though not explicit love scenes. The young lovers struggle with their sexual desire as it affects their yearning to connect on a deep level.
Photos © Copyright New Line Cinema
What Other Critics Are Saying
Nick Cassavetes' new film The Notebook, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (A Walk to Remember), tells the story of an aging couple who, as one of them struggles with Alzheimer's disease, spend time reminiscing about their younger days and their romantic courtship. James Garner and Gena Rowlands play the older version of the couple, while Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are the youthful lovers.
Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) says, "The movie is about enduring and passionate love that burns brightly with flames at the outset and ends up graduating to white-hot coals that last a lifetime." He also cautions viewers, "Hipper-than-thou movie critics are going to call it sappy, sentimental, and unrealistic. Ignore them. You will not find a more jaundiced crowd than movie critics."
Strangely enough, most Christian press critics aren't calling the movie any of those things. Almost all of them are celebrating the film, except for a few who point out that the film portrays premarital sex in romantic and appealing light.
Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says it's an "engaging, intergenerational love story. Sparks's novel rests in good hands with this fine adaptation by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi. The Notebook is a thoughtful, emotionally rich film that asks the right questions about love and life. In it, we see that great love, like deep faith, is forged on doubt, trials, and hardships. Only then does it deliver its deepest—and most eternal—rewards."
Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says the story is "incredibly moving. While there are no secrets about how the story will play out, The Notebook offers a beautiful tale well-told. It is a tale of love—how it begins, how it works, how it ends … and doesn't end. In it we see a picture of an ideal—a devotion, a loyalty, an unwavering commitment to love, honor, and cherish: in sickness and in health."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) raves, "The Notebook is a beautifully shot love story. From the opening frames to the last, viewers experience a cinematic atmosphere as enveloping as the love of the film's main characters."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Get your tissues ready. Even if this film plays on literary misconceptions about love and romance, it's still a heartwarming tear fest."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "This is a mature story about enduring love, commitment, and sacrifice that will have resonance among those blessed to have found a life partner with whom to weather the storms of time. As the baby boomer generation continues to advance in age, these types of stories, as sentimental as they may be, will have more and more meaning for us."
Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "Nicholas Sparks has said his story 'is a metaphor for God's love for us all. The theme is everlasting, unconditional love. It also goes into the sanctity of marriage and the beauty you can find in a loving relationship.' It's too bad that metaphor gets muddied by premarital sex. The painful consequences of separation remind us that God's way is still the best way, but most discerning families aren't going to want to sit through steamy sex scenes just to get that memo." (Handlon was apparently quoting Sparks from a Christianity Today Movies interview. What she conveniently left out was Sparks' very next quote: "I don't want to mislead anyone who thinks these characters are without flaw. They're in love. Crazy things sometimes happen. Do you get my drift? I can't say that everything in the story is completely and a hundred percent Christian. But these are human characters. Nobody is perfect, period.")
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Some will undoubtedly be turned off, quickly dismissing it as mawkish melodrama. Others less cynical will see this valentine for what it is, a wonderful, old-time love story replete with glowing photography, unabashed ardor and rapturous rain-soaked reunions—full of Hallmark heavy-handedness, but ultimately heartfelt."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) argues, "This film can easily resonate with older couples who have been together for many, many years, and, hopefully, also inspire this current generation of young people. If you've ever wanted to support a movie that respectfully affirms and values true love, then be encouraged to see The Notebook."
But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) stands apart from this chorus of raves, grading the film a 'D.' "The Notebook is about a couple whose budding relationship consists basically of three things: Doing cute / stupid / romantic / picturesque things. Waging a battle of wills. [And] getting way too forward with one another physically."
Regarding the characters' romanticized premarital sex scenes, Greydanus observes, "There's nothing remotely cautionary or critical here; the drama seems to side solidly with the young lovers. Those who previously knew Sparks primarily as the author of the wholesomely pro-chastity A Walk to Remember are liable to be caught off-guard by The Notebook's sex scenes, which are lit, choreographed, and edited to just this side of an R-rating."
Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "Mr. Sparks … is effective at playing his audience like marionettes, pushing a series of emotional buttons that leave those susceptible to his guiles hunched in their theater seats, shoulders trembling, lips quivering, wiping water from their eyes. There's undoubtedly an audience for this sort of thing, and that audience should be relatively happy with The Notebook." The filmmakers, he adds, give the sense "that vague emotion is more important than a concrete narrative."
Mainstream critics are similarly divided over the film, some calling it classy, others calling it sappy and unbearable.
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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